Meet Wheaton native Donna Rotunno, Harvey Weinstein's lead attorney
It was about an hour into Harvey Weinstein's rape trial when his lead defense lawyer came under attack. The prosecutor called a recent media blitz intended to discredit Weinstein's accusers "an abomination" and asked the judge to put an end to it with a gag order.
But the defense lawyer, Donna Rotunno, lashed back at the prosecutor, Joan Illuzzi.
"Ms. Illuzzi stands in this courtroom and calls my client a predator and then has the nerve to say I shouldn't go out and discuss this case," Rotunno said. "She wants everyone out there to convict Mr. Weinstein before one piece of evidence comes before this court."
Long before an avalanche of allegations against Weinstein set off a global reckoning over sexual harassment, Rotunno, a Wheaton native, was steadily building a career as a criminal lawyer with an unusual specialty: defending men accused of sex crimes.
As the #MeToo movement grew, she embraced the role of contrarian, arguing that a public rush to condemn men accused of sexual misconduct and assault was shredding reputations and careers without due process. Even if the movement had helped the feminist cause, she said, it came at too high a price.
"If we have 500 positives that come from a movement, but the one negative is that it strips you of your right to due process and a fair trial, and the presumption of innocence, then to me, not one of those things can outweigh the one bad," she said in an interview. "We can't have movements that strip us of our fundamental rights."
Weinstein, who made no secret of wanting to cast a woman as his courtroom champion, asked Rotunno to lead his defense team in May, after parting ways with two sets of lawyers led by men.
Since then, Rotunno has emerged as a paradoxical and polemical figure, who has decided to defend a man reviled by many women as the embodiment of chauvinism and sexual misconduct.
That has earned her the scorn of some women's rights advocates, who have suggested she may be motivated as much by the recognition and future work the case will bring her as by her legal principles.
"Her willingness to claim that #MeToo has gone too far is attached to a steady stream of big paychecks, but is not supported by the facts," said Jane Manning, an advocate for rape victims and a former New York City sex crimes prosecutor.
While the movement has encouraged women to speak up about sexual assault and has highlighted the failures of law enforcement to hold some men responsible for sexual crimes, in Rotunno's opinion, the cultural pendulum has swung too far. Many of her clients are considered guilty until proven innocent, she said.
While women should never be forced to do things they do not want to do, she said, she thinks they also must bear responsibility for their decisions.
"You can't just have it both ways and say, 'I should be able to do whatever I want without consequences. I should put myself in any situation I want and play victim,'" Rotunno said. "Having voluntary sex with someone even if it is a begrudging act is not a crime after the fact."
She added: "What happens with #BelieveAllWomen is that we're just supposed to believe you without any pushback, or questioning, or cross-examination. I think that's dangerous."
Rotunno grew up in Wheaton, the granddaughter of a police officer and the daughter of a businessman in the grocery industry and a teacher.
Even as a child, Rotunno became fascinated with practicing law while watching the television series "The Paper Chase," which was about a first-year Harvard Law School student.
She went to a local Catholic college, graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law, then landed a job as a clerk with the Cook County state's attorney's office in 1997. Three years later, she became an assistant state's attorney, working on domestic violence cases and felony crimes. By 2003, she had gone into private practice with a defense lawyer, and two years later, at age 29, she started her own firm.
"She decided to do something a lot of women don't do," said David A. Erickson, a retired judge who had once been her supervisor in the Cook County state's attorney office. "Strike out on her own."
In Chicago, she became known for her personal style and for winning criminal trials and specializing in sex crimes.
"She had a great mastery of the facts and the law," said Stanley Stallworth, a Chicago lawyer whom Rotunno successfully defended against a sexual assault charge. "She's a bulldog in the courtroom."
Entering court on a typical morning last August, Rotunno, who said she believes that "jurors appreciate people taking pride in how you dress," wore a black geometric-patterned Salvatore Ferragamo skirt and blouse with a large leather handbag slung over her left arm. Her Jimmy Choo pumps clicked against the floor. Around her neck, a delicate gold chain read: "Not Guilty."
Rotunno, who describes herself as "a reasonable-minded independent," said she finds it disheartening that the #MeToo movement has affected routine exchanges between men and women.
"It's sad," she said, "that men have to worry about being complimentary and pleasant to women."
When it comes to sex crimes cases, Rotunno has lost only once at trial. She keeps a courtroom sketch from that case taped to a wall in her office.
Her client Demarco Whitley, then 19, a former high school football player, was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Rotunno believes the "real perpetrator" was Whitley's cousin, who was also accused of participating in the attack but who died in a car accident before trial. Her client, she said, was "the follower."
She put the teenage girl through a brutal cross-examination, because "her story was not great." Afterward, she asked the prosecutor to pass a message on to the girl: "Tell her I had a job to do. I don't want this to define what happens to her."
That willingness to be tough on accusers has served her well in other cases. In 2014, for instance, she had won an acquittal for Elhadji "Haj" Gueye, a renowned fashion designer who had been charged with raping a woman in a condominium building where they both lived. The jury found reasonable doubt that a crime had been committed after Rotunno had argued the woman set Gueye up to extort $50,000.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors who know her say Rotunno is skilled at scouring evidence and exposing inconsistencies in testimony. "When she walks into a courtroom, she will know what is said on every piece of paper she was given," said Maria McCarthy, a Cook County prosecutor who has faced Rotunno in court.
Her prowess in cross-examination was evident at a recent Chicago hearing when she gently yet pointedly questioned a young girl who said she had been spanked and pushed by her father.
Rotunno brought out that the girl's account contradicted her earlier statement. Then Rotunno argued forcefully that the girl's mother had a vendetta against the father and was using the child as a pawn. A judge dismissed the case.
Rotunno's skill at undermining accusers on the witness stand will be put to the test in the Weinstein trial. The Manhattan district attorney's office plans to call six women to testify about their allegations that Weinstein sexually assaulted them, though many of those incidents are too old to be charged as separate crimes.
The prosecution's case hinges almost entirely on the jury believing the women's accounts, since there is little or no physical evidence. Weinstein is charged with raping one woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and forcing oral sex on a second woman in his apartment in 2006. The other women will be called to show a pattern of behavior.
As a woman, Rotunno anticipates that she can take a harder line against Weinstein's accusers without looking like a bully. Jurors, she said, will simply see two women having a conversation.
Gloria Allred, a lawyer who represents two of Weinstein's accusers, disagreed. "A bully is a bully, regardless of their gender," Allred said. "I don't believe it is appropriate to go after a victim on the stand with venom."
She added, "If this is her strategy, she may find that a New York jury is turned off by that tactic."
Prosecutors have signaled they will paint Weinstein to be a powerful movie producer who forced and manipulated women into having sex with him.
Rotunno said her job would be to convince the jury not only that the sexual encounters were consensual, but that the women were also manipulating Weinstein. She pointed out that both women maintained relationships with Weinstein after the alleged assaults.
"Yes, he's a powerful guy," she said. "But I think that because he's a powerful guy, they would use him and use him and use him for anything they could."
• Kerry Kasper contributed reporting from Chicago.